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Palatalization of velar (or further back) consonants /k x/ and the glottal /ɦ/ in onset position to allophonic [j c ç], when followed by a high vowel (especially the high front [i] vowel), occurs readily in Afrikaans. Furthermore, the alveolar /s/ in coda position tends to change to the allophone [ʃ] under the influence of [j]. One of the foci here is on a fairly recent development, in which /s/ under the influence of preceeding /r/ tends to change into the palatal [ʃ] too.


Firstly, we offer here an account of the well-known cases of regressive coarticulatory palatalization (A.), followed by the special case of progressive coarticulation (B.). For A., also consult Le Roux & Pienaar (1928), Coetzee (1992), Combrink & De Stadler (1987), De Villiers & Ponelis (1987) and Wissing (1982; 2017); for B.: (Wissing, D.P. 1982), (Wissing, Daan, Wikus Pienaar & Daniel van Niekerk 2015), (Wissing, Daan 2017).

[+] A. Palatalization as a result of regressive coarticulation

  1. Plosive:
    1. [c] < /k/: keer/ker/[ciər]times, occasion.
  2. Fricatives:
    1. [ç] < /x/: gee/xe/[çiə]give.
    2. [j] < /ɦ/: heers/ɦers/[jiərs]reign.
  3. More examples:
    1. [c] < /k/: keel, kees, keur, keuse, kies, bietjie, bakkie.
    2. [ç] < /x/: besighede, diegene, geel, geen, gees, gier, regering, RSG, NG-Kerk.
    3. [j] < /ɦ/: heel, heerlik, Here, hier.
  1. All of these cases involve fronting of a back consonant under the influence of [i], either the pure front vowel /i/ , spelled <ie> in kies, gier, hier, or secondary [i] as first segment of [iə] < /e/, written with <ee>, as in keel, or of [iə] < /ø/, written with <eu>, as in keuse. besighede/besəxɦedə/[biəsəçiədə] (plural form of besigheid/besəxɦəid/[biəsəxɦəit]) constitutes an interesting case. /x/ in the phonetic form [biəsəxɦəit] is uneffected by palatalization, but in the plural form [biə.sə.çiə.də], the /h/ has been deleted and resyllabification takes place, causing /x/ to occupy the onset position of the syllable followed by the palatalization-triggering vowel [iə], rendering [çiə].
  2. The process of palatalization takes place quite commonly. As a representative example, the onset fricative /x/ in geen/xen/none occurred 25 times out of 61 cases in a search in the RSG-database, i.e. RAP = 0.41.

    bakkie and bietjie need special attention. While in the other examples the effected consonant occurs in the onset position of words, here it is in the onset of a non-word-initial syllable, respectively /bɑ.ki/[bɑ.ci] and /bi.ki/[bi.ci]. Le Roux and Pienaar, in their pronunciation dictionary of Afrikaans (Le Roux, T.H.; Pienaar, P. de V. 1971) give only the non-palatalised [bɑki], but both [biki] and [bici]. De Villiers (1961) contends that there is no difference between -kie and -tjie as to their pronunciation; both should be transcribed with [ci]. This is an acceptable proposition in light of the strong coarticulatory influence of following palatal-like [i], similar to that found in e.g. kies above.

  3. Palatalization also occurs in non-word-initial position in cases other than in diminutives, as in energie, tegnologie, virologie (all found in the RSG-database).
  4. The abbreviation RSG - Radio Sonder Grense, the national Afrikaans broadcaster - is pronounced with or without palatalised <G>, thus as either [ær ɛs xiə] or [ær ɛs çiə]. /x/ in the well-known abbreviation NG (-kerk)NG Church also regularly gets palatalised to [ɛn çiə].

In the following figures, the pronunciation of the three velar consonants without and with palatalization is demonstrated . Listen to these words when palatalized:

Figure 1: Palatalization of voiceless velar consonant /k/ in keer/ker/. A: [kiər]; B: [ciər]; oscillograms and spectrograms

[click image to enlarge]
  1. The unpalatalised plosive [k] in A clearly shows the typical characteristics of a voiceless velar consonant: a silent portion (enclosed in yellow), a release burst plus a shortish positve VOT (in brown). In contrast to this, [c] (in green) shows fricative features, as seen in the energy present in the higher spectral region, which is absent in the corresponding region in [k]. Note also the absence of a release burst in [c].

Figure 2: geen/xen/. A: [xiən]; B: [çiən]

[click image to enlarge]
  1. Here the unpalatalised fricative [x] in A has different acoustic features (visible striations in both the oscillogram and the spectrogram) than [ç] in B (smoother energy in the spectrogram portion than in [x]).

Figure 3: heers/ɦers/. A: [ɦiərs]; B: [jiərs]

[click image to enlarge]

[+] B. Palatalization as a result of progressive coarticulation

A notable sound change regarding the voiceless fricative /s/, when following the rhotic consonant /r/, was first reported by Wissing et al. (2015). This alveolar fricative is frequently palatalized, especially in the language usage of speakers of the younger, current generation. The product of this phonological process is the palatal allophone [ʃ], to be observed in the following structures:

  • Coda clusters (<rs>), e.g. in bars/bɑrs/[bɑrʃ]burst
  • Bimorphemic context (<r+s>), e.g. in voorsien/fuərsin/[fuərʃin]provide
  • Bisyllabic context (<r$s>), e.g. in verseker/fərsekər/[fərʃiəkər]ensure
  • Phrases (<r#s>), e.g. in is reeds/əs rets/[əʃ riəts]is already

In Figure 4, in the word verseker, an unpalatalised [s] is compared to a palatalised /ʃ/.

Figure 4: Oscillograms and spectrograms of verseker/fərsekər/ A: [fərsiəkər]; B: [fərʃiəkər]. Centre of Gravity is indicated in Hz.

[click image to enlarge]

A was spoken 15 years prior to B. As can be seen, in A a much higher Centre of Gravity is present i.e. 6578 Hz vs. 4088 Hz for B. Listen to the sound: . The study by Wissing et al. (2015) revealed that in especially the pronunciation of young, white Afrikaans-speakers /s/ is often subject to progressive palatalization when preceded by /r/ in the coda cluster /rs/, and, to a lesser extent, in other contexts where /r/ is involved, for example across syllable and word boundaries. Only a slight presence of palatalization was detected in the production of white, older speakers. This finding might be indicative of a definite change in the Afrikaans fricative system.

  • De Villiers, M1961Daar is geen verskil tussen '-tjie' en '-kie' nie.Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe154-58
  • Le Roux, T.H. & Pienaar, P. de V1971Uitspraakwoordeboek van Afrikaans.Van Schaik
  • Wissing, D.P1982Algemene en Afrikaanse generatiewe fonologie.Macmillan
  • Wissing, Daan2017FonologieVan Schaik
  • Wissing, Daan, Wikus Pienaar & Daniel van Niekerk2015/s/-palatalisation Stellenbosch Papers in Linguistics Plus, Volume 48, Issue 1, Jan 2015, p. 137 - 15748137 - 157
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